Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 September 2009
Issue No. 963
Travel
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

In the realm of history

Amira El-Naqeeb finds much life in the Saqqara necropolis

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By the Saqqara necropolis there is much to enjoy, from watching the spectacular colonnaded hall to strolling by the enclosure hall or going on a horse or camel back ride

Spending a day exploring history is always food for thought. Sometimes you don't want the day to end while you attempt to unravel the past and understand the future. This is how I felt when I decided to take advantage of living close to the Pyramids of Giza and going on a picnic to the close-by vicinity.

The plan was to take a break from the ordinary, since it is neither a day-use by the pool of a five- star hotel, nor a weekend on the outskirts of Cairo or a close-by resort. My aim was to take a break with a cultural and historic character. And having Egyptologist and tour guide Ahmed Seddik as my companion made my adventure unforgettable.

The Pyramids area is famous for being home to many equestrian activities. However, some stables around Saqqara and Abusir pyramids are more than just that. Rancho Stables, for example, is one.

Heading in the direction of Saqqara necropolis on the main Saqqara/Marioutiya Road, follow directions towards Abusir Pyramid. Turn right off the main road and go straight until you find the Abusir Pyramid gate on the right. Go down a narrow road with a big red mansion on the right, then when you see a big iron gate on the left, cross to enter. You will cross fields on the left and right sides, with Rancho Garden's private gate facing you. Upon entering, you will feel you stumbled onto an oasis.

Since I prefer to trot rather than gallop, I mounted a calm mare, and prepared myself to head on a journey through history. We left the Ranch and headed towards the Abusir Pyramid [Place of Osiris], where the kings of the Fifth Dynasty chose to build their Houses of Eternity. Stepping into the desert we turned left towards our destination. Saqqara hosts the magnificent attempt of the first Step Pyramid, built for King Djoser, and is always a good place to start. Also, the entire Saqqara enclosure, located southwest of Cairo, is celebrated for its abundance of monuments and history. After trotting for 15 minutes with the horse I was face to face with the great Step Pyramid, also known as the mighty stairway to heaven. The world's first step pyramid, and considered to be the earliest large-scale stone construction. Seddik asserted that Imhotep built for Djoser an abode beyond the boundaries of death: "The Step Pyramid takes the shape of a wedding cake as if celebrating Djoser's marriage with eternity."

It was mid-day and the sun was hot, we rode around the pyramid for a view of the enclosure wall, with the Step Pyramid at its epicentre. The gate, dating back to the Third Dynasty of the Old Kingdom, glistened in gold under the sun. It is the only entrance to Djoser pyramid's complex.

I hopped off the horse and stood closer, inspecting the front of the gate, and I could see subtle tonality and grading in the stone colours. Seddik revealed that this wall was carefully restored during the 20th century. It was the great French architect Jean-Philippe Lauer (1902-2001) who spent 75 years of his life restoring and reconstructing the Step Pyramid complex. "I think Djoser was very lucky to have the genius of Imhotep in ancient times and Lauer in modern times," Seddik said.

Stepping into the towering colonnaded hall, I stopped in front of the engaged columns and marvelled at how they were masterfully restored. Inside the hall, the columns framed a corridor and the sun beams turned the inside into a temple of gold. Although it was hot, there was a vigorous energy about the place, making me feel that I can climb the Step Pyramid effortlessly.

Close by, we stood in front of the Heb-Sed court, where the Heb-Sed festival was celebrated. The court repletes with columns and what looked like remnants of steps. The Heb-Sed Festival was a very important event in the life of all ancient Egyptian Kings in an attempt to renew their strength and power. It was a jubilee held following the first 30 years of the king's rule, to be repeated every two or three years pending the king's orders. It was an occasion to show that you are athletically fit and hence possess the power and strength to hold the throne. There are many representations of this festival which normally depict the king running alongside the Apis bull in order to further prove his fitness.

We turned around and walked a few yards away from the pyramid and were now standing at the southern enclosure of the entire complex. The dilapidated pyramid of Unas was on our right. Unas was the last king of the Fifth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom, who ushered Egypt into an era of writing on pyramid walls -- the so-called pyramid texts. "These are the oldest known religious texts in the world," Seddik said. That same text evolved into coffin texts, and ultimately became the Book of Going Forth by Day (as named by Ancient Egyptians), or the Book of the Dead (as renamed by Egyptologists).

In the immediate neighbourhood lie the Mastaba tombs. These belonged to members of the palace court, since space in the vicinity of the Pharaoh was at a premium. The concept of modern day tombs is very removed from the beliefs of Ancient Egyptians. For them, tombs were called Houses of Eternity and were a way of celebrating eternity or the Other Life.

Speaking about life, I remembered eating as one of life's great essentials and pleasures. After spending a day amidst all this history, I was mentally overloaded but my stomach was waiting to be filled. For a quick bite and a drink, Saqqara café is close to the ticket office, but make sure you get there before it closes at 3pm. Saqqara Palm Club is a nearby country club which offers a wide range of food, but the downside is that the entrance fee is LE95 -- even if you will not take full advantage of the pool. We set a meeting point to go back to the ranch through the desert, making sure that the horses get their hefty lunch.

We took the main Marioutiya Road back, looking for a good eatery. We found an array of restaurants and chose Wahet Saqqara (Saqqara Oasis). The place has a small pool and a restaurant, with an outdoor terrace. Hungry and mentally overfed, I yearned for a fresh juice and a menu. To my disappointment the last I saw of the waiter who showed us our table was half an hour later. After finally ordering, the food took another half hour to materialise. Fortunately, the meal was delicious and made up for the incompetent service.

It was 45 minutes until sunset, and being in the lap of history, the day could be stretched out more. The sun was turning the sky into molten gold, and we told Farouk to get our horses ready to bare witness to this magical moment. Among Pharaoh's titles was Son of a God, to affirm his descent from the Sun God. Since the sun sets in the West, Egyptians built their Houses of Eternity in the West. "It is the promise of rebirth and resurrection," articulated Seddik.

As we were reaching the Abusir Pyramid, the horizon was a little indistinct, and the outline of the pyramid was starting to fade into a silhouette. This part of the desert is divine because it is less trodden, and thus more private. Going at a slow pace atop my mare, I felt like Queen Cleopatra. There is the option of staying out all night in the desert, gazing at the stars and wondering what our ancestors would be doing on a night like this. Was this as romantic for them as it is for me?

If you decide to stay out, the stables can make arrangements for a cookout, food and drinks or barbeque.

I don't know how long I stood on top of the hill overlooking the endless desert. I finally heard Seddik calling my name, as he galloped towards me from the far horizon. Almost an hour had passed and it was time to go down and enjoy some mint tea.

Back at Rancho Stables, I went to the roof and sat listening to the breeze toying with the leaves. "This is different from what I usually do after spending the day in the company of history," admitted Seddik, taking the seat next to me. But surely the options are many. The back garden at the stables offers a unique venue for a picnic, which I made the most of a few months ago. After a long day hiking around Abusir, a picnic box, a blanket and a seat amidst the trees and birds were ideal to end a date with history.

Rancho stables: For more information call Farouk: 010 103 5288/014 439 4441 or visit www.ahmedseddik.com

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